`Great ideas' for executives. Aspen Institute seminars let them reflect on life's larger issues

Robert H. Matt, president of a group of Midwestern furniture stores, can tell you all you need to know about Colonial-style bedsteads and end tables. Given half a chance, however, the Omaha businessman will also tell you about Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke, Thoreau and Gandhi -- and about the tension between justice and expediency, the individual and society, the real and the ideal.

The reason: He's recently returned from the Aspen Institute's prestigious ``Seminar for Business Executives.'' Here, at this green-lawned campus ringed with snow-capped mountains, he spent two rich weeks soaking up the contents of an anthology that ranges from Plutarch and Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Bell. He probed the great ideas of the great thinkers in three-hour daily discussions with 19 other participants, most of them corporate executives. And he had a rare opportunity to step aside from the business world and reflect on enduring human questions.

``We're going to revolutionize the world,'' he says with a chuckle, noting that the experience has made him ``think about the bigger things of the world . . . in terms of its history.''

Mr. Matt's ringing enthusiasm for the institute -- properly called the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies -- is typical of the response from participants, most of whom are corporate executives. They generally see the seminars as the first chance they've had since college to think hard about value systems, history, and what it means to be human. And that, says Australian scholar Colin Williams, the institute's director, is exactly the effect it should have.

Founded in 1950, the institute was the brainchild of Walter Paepcke, Chairman of the Container Corporation of America. A trustee of the University of Chicago, he modeled the institute loosely on the ``Great Books'' curriculum then under development there.

From the outset, says Dr. Williams, the institute aimed itself very specifically at senior corporate executives -- because, he explains, ``they were going to have such a major influence on the postwar world, and because it was felt that they weren't adequately prepared for that [since] they weren't adequately grounded in their own Western tradition.''

``It was important to get them thinking about their basic values and the basic values which underlie our Western civilization,'' he says.

Each of the 12 two-week executive seminars offered throughout the year is designed to avoid becoming a forum for hammering out solutions to business problems. ``As a matter of fact,'' says Williams, ``we say to [the participants]: `We don't want you to bring all your day-to-day problems and try to solve them while you're here. We want you to check all those issues at the plane when you get off and pick them up when you go out. We want you to get back into basic issues here.' ''

For New York businessman Warren Rubin, that is purpose enough. ``I find myself solving problems every day,'' he says, ``but they're business problems, and they're repetitive in nature, and they do not require a great deal of thought.'' Aspen, he says, is ``a renaissance'' that ``solves the problem of vacations'' by combining beautiful surroundings with intellectual stimulation. ``The broader the question [under discussion],'' he says, ``the more fun it is.''

The fun is not inexpensive. At $4,000 for the two-week session with room and board included ($6,750 with participating spouse or guest), the seminars tend to attract largely those whose corporations are willing to foot the bill. Even with those rates, however, the institute faces financial challenges. Mr. Williams, who oversees a program staff of 35 on a $6-million-plus budget, says the institute now loses about $350,000 a year by holding the seminars on its Aspen property, rather than limiting the locale to the institute's headquarters at Wye Plantation, a 1,000-acre estate on Maryland's eastern shore.

Negotiations are now under way with the Aspen City Council concerning some property the institute would like to develop. There has even been talk of leaving Aspen. But institute chairman Robert O. Anderson, chairman of the executive committee of the Atlantic Richfield Company, told the council in July that ``we have a deep identity with Aspen and don't anticipate any changes.'' The institute also has facilities in Berlin, France, and Italy, and offices in Tokyo, Seoul, and Stockholm.

Although the institute also convenes other meetings -- notably in the Governance Program, where outside grants and a $9 million endowment support the study of public policy issues -- it remains less a think tank than an educational institution. Its central focus is still on the roughly 300 people who pass through the executive seminars each year. Many participants return later for shorter seminars on such subjects as ``Justice and Society'' or ``Corporation in Contemporary Society,'' offered at Aspen, at Wye, and overseas.

Most participants, says registrar Bill Tharp, are corporate executives ``on the level of vice president or above.'' To Mr. Tharp falls the task of scheduling the seminars and establishing the right mix of executives (14 to 16 per seminar) and the half-dozen non-corporate leaders -- government officials, academicians, ambassadors, and others, many drawn from overseas -- who round out the groups. Many seminars also include the spouses or guests of participants.

Vickie Ferguson, a novelist from California who joined her banker husband Robert for this year's July seminar, found it an ``extremely beneficial'' two weeks. ``In the rush of life,'' she says, ``we forget about our potential to think.''

How does the institute measure its success? That, says Williams, is a difficult question -- since the seminars are not directly related to corporate life. For most participants, the real value lies not in immediate effects but in long-term results.

Lyndan H. Farmer, who as chief of general programs at the Voice of America was invited to the seminar in July, points to the simple realization that ``there's a whole other way of living your life.''

His wife, Peggy A. Loar, values the fact that it provided her with ``a conceptual framework'' for thinking through some work-related issues. As director of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, she found it helped her both in dealing with her staff and in writing exhibition catalogs. ``It's helped me to generalize and philosophize,'' she notes, adding that the real value came from being ``locked up lovingly with the caliber and kind of people I spent two weeks with.''

``You're pulled out of yourself,'' says Mrs. Ferguson, who finds it difficult to pin down any single result from the seminar. ``As a fiction writer,'' she says, ``everything you do has impact.''

So far, the institute has managed to couple its widely recognized name with a fairly low public profile. Participants hear about it largely by word of mouth. The Insitute does not even publicize the names of each seminar's moderators -- with the exception of the philosopher Mortimer Adler, whose name has become almost synonymous with the Aspen Institute because of several seminars he conducts here each year. ``We haven't done much in the way of publicity,'' admits Williams, ``because we haven't wanted the institute to get too big.''

Rushworth M. Kidder's Monday `Perspectives' column will return next week.

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